Thursday, September 20, 2007

Ten Days of Teshuva

POSTSCRIPTS: Three Short Sermons for Rosh Hashana

The Shofar, Threes and the Dynamism of Torah

Everything relating to Rosh Hashana is built around threes. Under Torah law, we are required to sound nine blast of the shofar—three sets of three each; but because of an uncertainty as to precisely what is meant by the term yom teru’ah, these are sounded in three different variants—what we call shevarim, teruah, and the combination of the two in shevarim-teru’ah—making a total of 9 + 9 + 12 notes, totalling 30. Moreover, the sounds themselves are constructed in multiples of threes: the teki’ah is one clean, unbroken blast; the shevarim, three shorter sounds, reminiscent of sighs or groans; and and the teruah, nine very short sounds, like someone weeping uncontrollably.

Moreover, the middle blessings of Musaf, which give the day its liturgical character, and which might be described as a mini-course in Jewish theology, couched in Midrashic language, is also made of threes: there are three blessings—Malkhuyot, Zikhronot, Shofarot—each one consisting of three parts: an opening exposition, ascribed by tradition to the amora Rav; a middle section, consisting of ten biblical proof texts; and a closing petition and blessing. The proof texts are in turn taken from the three sections of the Tanakh, three from each part, plus a concluding verse from the Torah: 3 + 3 + 3 + 1 = 10, again, a total of 30 verses. (These two sections, the primitive, unadorned, ancient sounds of the ram’s horn, and the elegant Hebrew of the Musaf liturgy, complement one another, coming as they do from the pre-verbal and verbal realms of expression.)

Why three? Three is a basic number, symbolizing growth, dynamism, life itself. The nuclear family consists of three: a father, a mother, and the child created through their union. Even when there are several children, each child stands in relation to its parents as the third member of triad. Or, according to the Hegelian theory of dialectics, all cultural and social progress occurs through the tension between opposing thesis and antithesis, leading in turn to a new synthesis, which then becomes the thesis of a new triad. In much the same way, each child may eventually becomes the parent of a new child, who will be grandchild to the original parents—and so on ad infinitum. Or, in the Sefirotic tree of the Kabbalah, contradictory elements are harmonized in a third principle—hokhmah & binah in da’at; hesed & gevurah in tiferet; and so forth. And so, too, we have three daily prayers, three pilgrimage festivals, and many other threes in our tradition.

Another significant use of the number three in Judaism appears in the second mishnah in Pirkei Avot: “On three pillars the world stands: on Torah, on avodah (Divine service), and on acts of kindness.”

Torah is one of the central themes connected with the shofar: thus, the blessing of Shofarot moves from a poetic portrayal of the Revelation at Sinai to the Final Redemption, the link connecting them being the shofar. According to one midrash, the shofar sounded at Sinai was made of the left horn of the ram offered by Abraham at the Akedah, in place of his son Isaac; while the right horn was fashioned into the “great shofar” which will herald the Messiah.

In recollecting the Sinai event, Deut 5:19 speaks of kol gadol velo yasaf, a phrase which can be translated in two diametrically opposite ways: “a great voice which did not continue”—that is, Sinai as a singular, unique event, the Torah given there as closed and unchangeable; or “a great voice which did not cease”—i.e., revelation as an ongoing, continuing event, ever-becoming. The process of Oral Torah, of human interpretation, is thus seen as an integral part of our hearing or sounding of the divine voice. (This phrase is used, in all its ambiguity, as the title of a recent interesting book on the philosophy of halakhah by Yochanan Silman.)

There is thus a tension between the fixed and the dynamic aspects of Torah, between the written text and the living interpretation. It is Oral Torah that enables the Torah to be alive, “a Torah of life.” Indeed, it is this tension that is expressed in the slogan “Tradition and Change,” used by the Conservative movement. Although I disagree with some, perhaps even many, of the applications and implementations this movement has made of this slogan, in principle the idea is correct. Traditional Orthodox Jewry has too long suffered from a fortress mentality; hopefully, we are now seeing the beginnings of a movement within halakhically-loyal Jewry for renewed vitality and dialectical rethinking of the halakhic process.

This dialectical process is exemplified by the Shemitah (sabbatical) year, which just began on this Rosh Hashana. This institution—a complete halt of all agricultural labor; the opening of whatever grows by itself in the fields and orchards in a free and equal way to all and any comers; the cancellation of debts—expresses an idyllic vision of human equality, a kind of primitive and simple form of socialism, of radical sharing of wealth among all. But experience has shown it to be unworkable in this world. Thus, two solutions, really legal fictions, have been developed that, on the one hand, maintain the formal rules of shemitah and, on the other, enable people to live. (I refer to heter mekhira and pruzbul—the pro-forma sale of the Land of Israel to a non-Jew, allowing normal agricultural activity to go on; and the formal transfer of outstanding debts to the Court, who is allowed to collect them on behalf of the creditor even after the end of shemitah.)

A second aspect of Torah worth mentioning is the obligation to engage in Talmud Torah; that Torah study is a central religious act in Judaism. This universal duty of life-long study, a rare phenomenon in human cultures, has clearly shaped Jewish life. Indeed, some modernists like to cite it as a reason for Jewish intellectual success in a wide variety of fields—the disproportionate number of Nobel Prize winners, the geniuses like Marx and Freud and Einstein who reshaped our world, Jewish contributions in science and arts and literature and social criticism. But be that as it may, the main thrust of this idea is still that it is imperative for the modern Jew, whatever his “belief,” to learn about Judaism to read Jewish books. To study Torah, in its broadest sense—not only Talmud and poskim, but Jewish philosophy, mysticism, modern study of the Bible, etc. A daily chapter of Tanakh, reading parshat hashavua, are good places to start. Rosh Hashana is a good time for each person to resolve to “fix times for Torah.”

On Prayer and Piyyutim

The second of the three “pillars” on which the world stands is avodah, Divine service, which, in today’s, post-Temple world, is equated with verbal prayer. The Days of Awe—Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, and the days of Selihot before it and in between—are days of intense and extended prayer. It is important that people pray with passion, with engagement, that it be real. One must not only read the words, but strive for a sense of literally standing before God.

When I was a teenager, Rabbi Josiah Derby z”l, the rabbi of my family’s local synagogue, told me the following story about his own father, a Berdichever hasid. His father used to say of himself that “I don’t fast on Yom Kippur.” To the astonishment of his listeners upon hearing such a “confession” from such an obviously pious Jew, he explained: “Every day of the year neither food nor drink passes my lips until after I finish davening. On Yom Kippur the prayers just take a bit longer.” This is how a Jew ought to pray on Yom Kippur!

What is prayer? It is essentially defined as avodah, as service of God. Thus, while it contains bakashot, requests relating to our needs as individuals and as a community, the emphasis is not on asking for our needs, but on standing before God, on praising Him, on being in relation to Him. Bakashat tzerakhim is merely an offshoot of that—we recognize our dependence on Him, and hence address whatever requests we have regarding our life to him. And indeed, our Shabbat and festive prayers omit the section of requests entirely. True, on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur there are certain petitionary prayers, but these are of a very general nature—asking for the renewal of life and, on Yom Kippur, for forgiveness of sins.

One of the features of the High Holy Days that puzzles many people is the profusion of piyyutim that fill the liturgy. These are medieval liturgical poems, written in a very difficult, some would say contorted Hebrew, with numerous unusual and unfamiliar grammatical constructions and thick with midrashic and other allusions, almost invariable phrased in obscure and difficult language. They were written for a Jewish culture in which popular knowledge of midrashim was widespread, common coin.

I will discuss piyyutim at greater length some other time. For now, I will conclude with one general comment: that the impulse that guided the authors of the piyyutim was hiddur mitzvah—the desire to adorn and beautify the liturgy of these special days. “This is my God and I will beautify Him.” Perhaps most of the piyyutim are too difficult and obscure to appeal to most of us—800 or 1000 years is a long time, and cultural tastes change—but perhaps we can try to implement the spirit, making our prayers an opportunity to serve God with both beauty and devotion.

Teshuvah and Gemillut Hasadim

A point that is obvious, but bears repeating: in our day, there is widespread distortion of the concepts of teshuvah and the identity of the ba’al teshuvah. The term seems to have been preempted, as referring to the process of becoming “religious” or “observant” or “Orthodox.” Yet teshuvah is really about the inner work each person needs to do. Becoming “religious” in the sense of beginning to observe Shabbat, don tefillin, eat kosher, and pray daily is in a sense the easy part. The more difficult part is the lifelong struggle with negative character traits, habits and behavior with which every human being on the face of this planet is beset, in one degree or another: anger, laziness, addiction to things that seem pleasurable [food, sex, smoking, alcohol, gossip, TV, computer games, whatever], irresponsibility, gossip, nastiness to others, dishonesty in money dealings… the list is endless. And both “religious” and “secular” people have much to do in these areas.

The third pillar of Judaism is gemillut hasadim: acts of kindness, which really encompasses the whole area of inter-human relations. Examples include rejoicing the bride, visiting the sick, comforting mourners, loaning money or goods to those that need them. Historically, the Jewish community functioned as an instrument enabling people to practice hesed, by organizing societies for these purposes. I remember that once, in the Pardes minyan in Ramat Eshkol where I used to daven every Shabbat, a certain person suffered a brain tumor. Every Shabbat afternoon people from the community went to his home, to talk to him, to say some words of Torah, to pray Minha and Ma’ariv together so he would have the opportunity once a week to worship with a community. This continued until he died. Some years later, when one of the initiators of this weekly visit himself fell sick, people visited him every week at the same time—and, as I learned later by accident, throughout this period certain people—not millionaires, but people with a few spare shekels—unobtrusively paid the rent and helped the family as much as they were able, o assure that they would not suffer on account of this illness.

An interesting thought occurred to me this year: the readings for the Second Day of Rosh Hashana are concerned wth “big” events: the religious heroism displayed in Akedat Yitzhak, the Binding of Isaac and, in the haftarah, the promise of redemption in Jeremiah 31. But what of the readings for the First Day? These are concerned with humble, family events, “the day of small things”—the birth and childhood of Isaac, the separation from Hagar and Ishmael, Hanah’s barrenness, her prayer and childbirth. These, the Sages who arranged the readings seem to be telling us, are in their own way as of great importance as the “world–historical” dramas of the Second Day.

One more thought: the essence of the Akedah was Abrahams’ total self-abnegation, his foregoing all of his personal hopes and aspirations for the future to do God’s will. In a humble, simple way, this is also the core idea underlying the practice of hesed. The ethics of practical kindness towards others implies a minor kind of bittul hayesh, of self-abnegation. It means foregoing one’s own self, one’s autonomy and individual will, to sacrifice one’s time and money, in order to place others at the center. In today’s world, this is a profound and significant message.


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